Restaurant Review: Straight Outta Austin
SLAB's new take on old-school barbecue
Reviewed by Virginia B. Wood, Fri., Oct. 31, 2014
SLAB BBQ9012 Research, 512/351-9977
Mark Avalos' first experience with barbecue success was a smoked pork shoulder he chopped up and served on sandwiches topped with a tangy coleslaw. The sandwiches were so well received they became Avalos' signature item, the dish around which the self-taught pit man would eventually build a barbecue business. Rather than adhere strictly to the Central Texas barbecue tradition, Avalos researched and dabbled in barbecue styles from around the American South while teaching himself the trade. Now, when asked to describe the style and flavor profile at SLAB (which stands for Slow, Low, and Bangin'), he responds, "It's Memphis meets Carolina meets Texas."
Avalos' first foray into the barbecue sandwich business was called the Sugar Shack, which morphed into a SLAB trailer in the UT campus area in 2013. In the summer of 2014, Avalos and his new business partners moved the SLAB into a brick-and-mortar location in a shopping center at one of Austin's busiest intersections. They've settled in and built a loyal lunch clientele and catering operation with the addition of a food truck for special events. Avalos says he'd like to reopen the trailer near campus at some point, but it's on hiatus at the moment.
If you're looking for an atmosphere reminiscent of the rural Central Texas meat-market tradition, you will not find it at SLAB. Avalos and his partners Rafael Robinson, Chip Osborne, and Chip Gourley set their sights on a different aesthetic. The interior decor and menu descriptions are an homage to Nineties street culture and urban graffiti – look for sandwiches called the Notorious P.I.G., the CHICK.N.W.A., and the Texas O.G. served in a dining room with flat-screen TVs tuned to sports and original artwork by local graffiti artist Aaron Darling of SprATX. Since I'm somewhat of a barbecue traditionalist, the combination of a sports bar-like setting with a hip-hop theme struck me as odd, but the sandwiches were pretty good – once we got to them.
Our group arrived at SLAB at 6pm on a recent Saturday evening to find two large pick-up trucks parked blocking both the sidewalk and the curb cut necessary for handicapped access. Since one of my guests was using a walker and I was on my scooter, this posed a problem. Oddly enough, we were told the trucks belonged to staff members and the business. Although one of the trucks was moved quickly, allowing employees to block access to the restaurant didn't strike me as a wise management decision in the first place.
Diners at SLAB go through a cafeteria-like line and the meats – brisket, pork, sausage, chicken, or St. Louis-style pork ribs – are chopped or sliced to order for sandwiches, wraps, or sliders. (Be advised that the constant chopping is part of the restaurant's ambient soundtrack.) Select sandwiches from the menu or design your own based on choices of meats, breads (Lil' Mama's Bakery white, wheat, or jalapeño cheddar buns, El Milagro tortillas), garnishes, and house-made sauces. Pair sandwiches with house side dishes or chips, then round out the meal with Cutie Pies or a selection of local craft beers on tap.
We tried the ribs, and a variety of sandwiches, plus all the house sides and sauces. The half-pound of pork ribs ($8) was the unqualified hit at the table; lightly smoked under a crunchy layer of bark, they offered plenty of moist, tender meat and plenty of porky flavor. However, the sickly sweet fruit and habanero glaze served on the side was an unnecessary and unwelcome affront to the quality of the ribs. Reaction to most of the sides was unenthusiastic, but both the distinctive mustard slaw and the sweet, hearty baked beans passed muster with our group. My sandwich choice, El Jefe ($7), featured tasty chopped brisket dressed with grilled onions, jalapeños, and a mantle of the house queso on a jalapeño cheddar bun. For the full effect, add a sprinkling of Fritos (50 cents) for crunch. It's a big, juicy, gloriously messy sandwich, but there are handy napkin dispensers on every table. The Texas Two-Step ($7) was another popular option: a choice of one meat paired with slices of Smokey Denmark sausage, pickles, onions, and two of the house sauces. The Notorious P.I.G. ($7) was a clear winner, with a big mound of sweet pulled pork crowned with the mustard slaw and a dousing of the house Backyard Red barbecue sauce – each bite revealing why Avalos has been able to build a business on this particular sandwich.
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